Home > Playing in Life's Ballpark > #3 — On Life, Experience, and Change: Free baseball!

#3 — On Life, Experience, and Change: Free baseball!

It’s called “open-heart surgery,” and somehow the term doesn’t do justice to the experience.  There are many ways to describe spending 4-5 hours having your chest cut open, your heart stopped, and one of your giblets taken apart.  What comes to mind for me is memorable.  In my case, my defective aortic valve was removed and replaced with donor tissue described as “porcine.”  My doctor said later that he had installed a “large valve.”  That makes the porcine citizen probably male, and my intuitive sense sees him as British and going by the name Barnaby.  Even now, I find myself developing an interest in tea in the late afternoons. 

Naturally, the impact of such an experience is profound and not to be taken in all at once.  Yet what is most memorable to me is not the occasion itself but many of the details involved.  What struck me first was how routinely I was greeted at the hospital.  There was a group of us, all scheduled for surgery early that morning.  We were all cordially yet unceremoniously greeted and then ushered into a series of preparation rooms.  Then there were questions, followed by a lot of poking, sticking, and “prepping,” followed by more of the same questions.  I was struck by the contradictory nature of this experience, a bizarre mixture of the monumental and the mundane.  So much was treated as simply routine that it was difficult to connect it all with the idea that I was about to face my own mortality, with my life and future quite literally in my surgeon’s hands.  But then another voice from the back of my mind chided, “What did you expect — a brass band, fanfare, some kind of ceremony?”  I recognized this as the part of me that seeks to keep me grounded and that lets me know if I start to take myself too seriously.  I have come to value this part of myself very much.  After all, the only thing I really needed to know was that I was about to go through a major transition — change. 

So much of how we deal with change is determined by how we view experience, whether we see it as happening to us or from us.  Do we have active control of our lives, or are we merely victims of them?  This is, of course, a classic yin-yang debate: subjective or objective, proactive or reactive, right brain or left brain.  There is benefit in understanding and appreciating both sides of this debate, yet there is great danger in actually choosing a side.  The reason is that we are not truly faced with an either-or question.  The answer, ultimately, is both.  Just as we seek to change our experience, our experience changes us; that’s what it is supposed to do!  That is the way life works!  There are many important lessons we all must learn that only experience can teach us, which means that being an active participant in life is not an option but a requirement.  You can’t learn about love or pain or inebriation, for example, from books or in a classroom.  Sure, you can get an intellectual grasp of what those things are like, but until you’ve actually experienced them for yourself, you can’t really know. 

 If we make the mistake of choosing a side in this yin-yang debate, say opting for objective over subjective, we first experience a gradual devaluing of the other side, the other point of view, and an inevitable loss of perspective.  I remember working with a couple years ago who always ran into conflict in making joint decisions.  He would start by asserting they should choose A because it “made sense.”  She would respond that A didn’t “feel right” and B did.  He would then accuse her of being “illogical and emotional.”  She would respond that he was “insensitive.”  I would point out that they had both painted themselves into a corner by insisting on seeing and interpreting all their experience from just one point of view.  Such decisions cannot be made in the corners; they must be made in the middle.

 An even greater danger, however, in adopting a fixed viewpoint is that it makes you vulnerable to that dreaded bugaboo, expectation.  There is much wisdom in the saying: The man who has no expectations cannot be disappointed.  Yet having no expectations is a tall order.  Despite all our practices of mindfulness, presence, acceptance, and so on, we still inevitably develop expectations even without knowing it.  And expectations love to play off ego.  Without even being aware of it, we can easily become wedded to those expectations and start to feel entitled.  Then, when an expectation isn’t met, we’re not just left disappointed, we become resentful.

 My recent major surgery was not my first.  Having gone through coronary bypass surgery nine years ago, I looked forward to this latest experience with the confident air of a veteran.  I knew the territory.  I knew what to expect.  I knew how to handle it.  I was ready.  And, of course, what I expected is not what happened.  I awoke in the ICU, not with focused attention or relaxed acceptance, but in a kind of anesthetic never-never land.  Rather than the quiet calm and constant attention I had received previously, I was surrounded by chaos and cacophony and a caring but harried nurse who had to deal with me and three other people.  To make matters worse, I suffered a bad reaction to a pain-suppressing drug I had been given, which took several days to identify and eliminate.  In all, my arrival on the other side of this surgery defied all my expectations and left me feeling somewhat chagrinned.  Nevertheless, while I didn’t exactly breeze through the way I had expected, I did get through.

 And there is a bright side.  Before and after both my surgeries a lot of people made a point to discuss post-operative depression with me and how it is prevalent among “older men.”  I am forced to confess that of all the aspects of this surgery with which people struggle, this is the one I relate to the least.  I still vividly remember what it was like being in those cheap seats at Fenway, when the game would end tied and then have to go into extra innings.  Every pitch, every hit, every play became a potential game winner for one side or the other.  The players, coaches, umpires, and fans were never more engaged, and all this was after we had already completed nine innings.  The game was still going, and being there was never more fun.  We used to call it free baseball.  For me, this is what it was like waking up after surgery.  Once I became oriented and understood where I was and that the surgery was past, I realized that the game was still going.  I could still be engaged and make every part of every moment of every day count.  Rather that post-operative depression, I experienced post-operative euphoria.

 I think there are two things to take from all this.  First, if you’re having surgery, leave your modesty at home and take your sense of humor with you.  Second, in approaching experience, it’s importance to seek a balance.  Life is rarely all one thing or all another; rather it is an ambiguous mixed bag in which we get to choose some things but not others.  And sometimes life makes choices for us, even when we prefer that it wouldn’t.  Nevertheless, if we can resist choosing the yin or the yang, if we can keep seeking our own balance, accepting its personal and elusive nature, then we can be truly free to engage fully in life’s ballpark.  We can keep the game going and enjoy personal enrichment.  Free baseball!

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